The Artist and the Model


Portrait painting is a genre in painting to depict a human subject.

Portraitists often work on commission, but can also simply just be inspired by the subject itself and create their own work. Historically, many portraits have been created to describe important scenes, state or for family records. Francisco Goya’s painting, “The Third of May, 1808” was a statement about the massacre of Spanish civilians against France during the occupation of 1808. How has the tradition of figure paintings, which consist of a lot of part in the history of Western art, whether clothed or nude, influenced on the contemporary portrait paintings? How has such a tradition like that maintained its context in contemporary art?

Francisco de Goya, ‘The Third of May, 1808’, Oil on canvas, 268, 347cm, 1814

The criterion of a great portrait painting was to express inner emotions of the subject effectively, along with depicting the outward appearance. It is likely to be the same in Eastern art. The reason why figure painting was thought to be difficult to create compared to other genres of Eastern paintings, such as landscape painting, four gracious plant painting, painting of animals, painting of flower and birds, was that the inner state of the subject was considered very important. Self-portrait of Yun Du-seo, a painter of the Joseon period of Korea with his painting technique from Western art, is praised because it depicts the sadness of a young genius painter who was suppressed due to political reason.

국보 제240호 공재 윤두서(1668-1715) 자화상, 20, 38cm, Self-portrait of Yun Du-seo

Like Eastern art, the content of an artwork is more important than the form in Western classical art, in which ideal beauty was pursued. To be more specific, no matter if it was religious or political, the genre of historical painting was considered to be the most important genre, and the next was figure painting. Occasionally, landscape painting functioned as the background of historical painting. The fact that artists at that time pursued the most ideal form of visual reproduction tells that contemporary art, in which the theme and interpretation are critical, was not suddenly born out of the academic ideas of Western art. Artists’ scientific approach in perspective or techniques for recreating imagination, which appeared to be on paintings as well as portrait paintings, was, in fact, to give spiritual messages in them.

Leonardo da Vinci presented more live, dynamic aspects with expressions of human bones and muscles based on anatomy. His study of proportions of a human body made drawings more realistic. He emphasized on an ideal figure of gods and heroes by stretching the legs longer and making the proportions to be eight-and-a-half heads tall. He left lots of drawings and notes, and his scientific approaches to describing the perfect human body was, after all, to define the source of human emotions. It makes one wonder what the emotions he was exploring, how they are visualized and connected to ideal beauty.

Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomy of a male nude, Drawing 1508

Not only traditional drawing artists but also many artists like Van Gogh, Edvard Munk, and Egon Schiele captured the live expressions and movements from drawing models. Especially, Egon Schiele is famous for drawings with his authentic and raw sexual expression.

Egon Schiele, ‘Portrait of Wally Neuzil’, 1912
Egon Schiele, Seated Woman with Bented Knee, 1917

Invention of the camera has changed art such as traditional painting, photography and commercials of contemporary art. The British artist, critic John Berger, said that, for us who live in the age of mechanical reproduction, looking is a political act, and images can be used like words. Art like photography requires a story, narrative for interpretation. Although we are bombarded constantly with images, it is likely to be true that, in the historical context, the heritage of the traditional nude in Western art based on the man-dominated world cannot be ignored. As the traditional oil painting, which was central to Western art and an important means of distribution of politics and economy, has changed, artists have been put in a position to find a strategy on what to paint while they have acquired the freedom to paint whatever they want.

An artist, Cheon, who works in Daegu, has presented a unique series of abstract paintings that seemed to remind us of the difficulty to come up with what to paint on a white canvas, Horror Vacui, the fear of white space, which every artist must encounter at times. The fact that the mediums and styles of classical arts like oil paintings, portraits were the crucial factors in determining the culture and customs of the old time, and that the painters could just follow certain techniques and expressions set out in order to depict the image of God and the elegance of nobility might be much more desirable for many of today’s artists. His family paintings show us a great sense of appreciation, in which he might have been rather anxious with enormous freedom to choose what to paint. The guided painting of his family that seems to be done in an art class in school shows us that he feels nostalgia for his childhood. It is bittersweet as if it were all the families of our time drifting alone in the vast ocean of this huge world.

Cheon, My Family, Pastel on paper, 29,42cm, 2015
Cheon, My Family, Pastel on paper, 29,42cm, 2015

“All paintings starts out of a mood, out of a relationship with things or people out of a complete visual impression. To call this expression abstract seems to me often to confuse the issue. Abstract means literally to draw from or separate. In this sense every artist is abstract – a realistic or non-objective approach makes no difference. The results count.”

-Richard Diebenkorn-

As the American painter, Richard Diebenkorn, said above, paintings in today’s art are probably all abstract. It may not be only because of the impressions of Cheon’s family paintings that one thinks of people far-off on the night street, those with dim faces, from looking at his recent series of artwork of ‘The Starry Night’. Abstract or not, we should applaud this young artist for his bold gesture to use his brush as a sword striking in this world of anarchy.

Cheon, The Starry Night, Oil on canvas, 145,227cm, 2018



Written by Yoonkyung Kim

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